Last week I went to Doha for the 2018 Qatar Classic. For the first time I was able to make a Qatar Classic final.
It was as advertised: one of the most exciting, noisy, celebratory scenes on the pro squash tour. Every seat in the arena at the Khalifa International Tennis & Squash Complex was filled. Two rows of standing patrons ringed the walkway above, cheek-by-jowl with the production crews—SquashTV, Sports Data Labs and a large desk for BeIN Sports, with their anchors reporting live.
The atmosphere for the finals was unreal. Hundreds of kids and adults slapped thunderstix, clapped, cheered and yelled. They held up signs and waved Egyptian flags. They chanted “Ali, Ali” whenever Ali Farag hit a winner. When Farag completed his first-game comeback (down 9-6 to Simon Rosner, he reeled off five straight points), I felt the roof was about to come off.
After the match I asked Farag about the crowd. “I’ve never experienced anything like it,” he said. “It was scary, extremely scary. I had visualized it before the match. I was prepared for it. But when Andy [Taylor, the emcee} announced my name and that wall of noise hit me, it was beyond my imagination.”
I asked Farag about how it compared to intercollegiate squash in the U.S., for a Harvard v. Trinity dual match. “It was even louder than that,” he said. “In college, it’s a bit spread out, it is a team event, there are other matches going on. Here it was just me. It wasn’t until I was halfway through the first game, at 2-6, that I finally relaxed.”
Another reason for nerves was Mohamed Aboutrika. The legendary Egyptian footballer slipped into a front-row seat after the first game, amidst much whispering among the spectators. After the match, Farag shook his hand upon clinching his victory. Then Aboutrika went out on the court and stood for photos with Farag and then tried to leave the arena. A swarm of fans blocked his path and took dozens and dozens of selfies. Aboutrika, hustled along by security, gamely stopped every step or two and smiled for another selfie. (People took numerous selfies of the selfies, a meta-matryoshka moment.) This push-and-pull lasted for about ten minutes before he finally slipped away.
Farag was almost as stunned by Aboutrika’s presence as by the passionate fans at Khalifa. “I almost met him last year in Manchester when he came to watch some matches,” said Farag, “and to finally talk with him for a moment was amazing,”
In the days after the final, both Farag and Aboutrika tweeted out a photo of the two of them on court with the Qatar Classic trophy. The scale of squash v. soccer was apparent. Seventy people retweeted and three thousand people liked Farag’s tweet (he has five thousand followers). For Aboutrika’s tweet, a thousand retweeted and twenty-two thousand liked it (he has 4.5 million followers).